MAE LA REFUGEE CAMP, Thailand – Myanmar's opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi got an up-close look at her nation's long-standing refugee crisis for the first time Saturday, visiting a sprawling sea of thatched huts on the Thai border to tell those who fled here: "You will not be forgotten."
The newly elected lawmaker's six-day journey to Thailand is her first foreign trip in 24 years, and she has used it to draw attention to the plight of her compatriots abroad — from exploited migrant workers who came in search of jobs to war refugees who came in search of peace.
The wildly enthusiastic refugees in Mae La said Suu Kyi's trip Saturday was the first time anyone of such stature from Myanmar's government had ever visited them. But few had hope their fate would change soon.
"If we go back now, who will guarantee our security?" said Naw Mu, a 35-year-old woman who crossed the border 10 years ago and now lives in the crowded camp, which is shadowed by rugged mist-shrouded mountaintops covered in dense forest.
"We want go back when there is peace, but we're not ready," Naw Mu said. "We're afraid it'll be like it was before — we'll be running for our lives."
Ethnic Karen rebels fighting for greater autonomy took up arms at independence from Britain in 1948 and are one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world. Over the last few months, however, they have been negotiating a historic truce with the government and skirmishes have eased.
The cease-fire is part of a wave of globally praised reforms engineered by President Thein Sein's military-backed government over the last year that have begun transforming the international pariah into a newly budding nation that has finally begun to open up.
Suu Kyi's trip itself is also being seen as proof of the confidence she has in those reforms. The 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner, who spent 15 of the last two decades under house arrest, had previously refused to leave the country because she feared the former ruling generals would not let her return.
Suu Kyi's trip to Mae La was much like her electoral campaign earlier this year that won her a seat in parliament: Pulsating crowds of supporters screamed her name and struggled to get a glimpse of the former political prisoner they have heard so much about but never seen.
The beating of traditional drums heralded her arrival and departure, and as her convoy inched through the camp's dirt roads, Suu Kyi mostly stayed in her vehicle, waving to the crush of onlookers wailing "Long live Mother Suu!"
The 66-year-old opposition leader visited a health clinic in the camp, and listened intently as local authorities described the grim living conditions of nearly 50,000 refugees here, almost all of them entirely dependent on aid to survive.
"I have not forgotten you," Suu Kyi said during one of several impromptu stops to greet the crowds.
Asked to comment on her visit to the camp, Suu Kyi told The Associated Press: "It's not a problem to be solved with emotions. We have to solve it practically."
This part of the Thai border is home to up to 140,000 refugees. The United Nations says there are at least 417,000 refugees from Myanmar altogether, the rest living in Malaysia, India and Bangladesh.
The fact that they are too fearful to return is a testament to the challenges ahead — including ending an upsurge of fighting in northern Kachin state and releasing hundreds of remaining political prisoners. Although Western nations have begun suspending harsh economic sanctions that once helped isolate the now-defunct military regime, Suu Kyi says the world should exercise caution and maintain a "healthy skepticism."
Aeh Aeh Phaw, a married mother of eight who fled to Mae La in 2008 to escape fighting, said she dreams every day of going home.
"Being in the camp is like living in a prison. It's like we're birds in a cage, we cannot move freely," she said. "But we cannot go home until there is security and peace."